Friends and family mourn Roni Eshel, 19, at her funeral in Kfar Saba, Israel. She was killed during the October 7, 2023, attack by Hamas gunmen in southern Israel (OSV News photo/Shir Torem, Reuters).

Before the destruction wrought by the Holocaust, there was the dislocation of the Great War. When Avraham Levite, a survivor of Auschwitz, came to write the story of his hometown—the Galician shtetl of Brzozow, which was annihilated by the Nazis—he traced the town’s entrance into modernity to the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire during World War I. Its collapse, Levite wrote, unshackled the “fathomless hatred of the Jews, endemic in Poland,” leading to pogroms and poverty. 

In these dire straits, a new consciousness emerged. Before, the shtetl had envisioned only two worlds: the current world of exile, where Jewish leaders sought no more than to ameliorate their people’s suffering, and the future world of redemption, to arrive in God’s own time and by God’s own hand. Now, a third horizon of possibility emerged: political activism aimed at fundamentally changing the Jews’ lot through collective self-determination. “Those were the first steps of the Zionist movement in the shtetl.”

Just as the ravages of the Great War accelerated the collective Jewish return to historical time, so it moved Jews to take up collective historiography. At the beginning of 1915, three famous Jewish writers, I. L. Peretz, Yankev Dinezon, and S. Ansky-Rapaport, issued an exhortation in a Warsaw newspaper calling on Jewish readers to send them material concerning their tragic experience of the war. Their readers should “record everything,” enter “each drop of our blood, each tear” into the historical record. If the Jews did not write their own history, these writers warned, then their enemies would write it for them and produce a “factory of lies and fabrications and the wildest accusations.”

On January 3, 1945, the same Avraham Levite wrote from within Auschwitz itself a short reflection meant to serve as an introduction to a collection of literary works and testimonies composed by fellow inmates. As noted by David Suchoff, who translated the Yiddish text, Levite’s introduction follows in the footsteps of Peretz and his colleagues. It insists on the importance of Jewish historiography, again out of the conviction that non-Jews, acting with ill intent, will distort the truth of Auschwitz. “They will industriously collect every last margarine wrapper and sausage skin to prove conclusively that it wasn’t bad at all for the Jews in the camp.”


Today, decades after the Zionist movement culminated in the founding of the state of Israel, and as the last survivors of the Holocaust are now passing away, a new historiographical injunction has issued among the Jewish people. The National Library of Israel (NLI), “entrusted with the sacred duty of cultivating and preserving the collective memory of the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” calls on its website for the submission of “any documentation” related to the October 7 atrocities and their aftermath. By collecting this material and combining it with the collections of a large and growing number of partner institutions in Israel and the Diaspora, the NLI hopes to curate nothing less than a “national memory database” for this “unique period of Jewish history.” It envisions a vast, searchable archive of everything from social-media posts to synagogue sermons to video testimony to internal newsletters published by displaced kibbutz communities.

I visited the NLI in January as part of a solidarity contingent of scholars in Jewish Studies. We came to Israel to learn from our academic colleagues about the impact of and response to October 7. Just last year, the NLI opened the doors of its new building, a magnificent edifice in Jerusalem just to the west of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. The tale may be apocryphal, but on our tour of the building we were told that its gracefully sloped roof was a departure from the original plan. When Reuven Rivlin, then Israel’s president, reviewed that plan, he noticed that the projected roof would obstruct the view from the Knesset westward to Mount Herzl, Israel’s equivalent of Arlington Cemetery. So that Knesset members would continue to have the country’s fallen heroes before their eyes during their deliberations, the contour of the NLI’s roof was modified. But if the NLI ducks its head out of this commemorative sightline, it also constitutes a devoted guardian of the recent and distant past of Israel and the Jewish people. The central library space in the interior of the building is structured to resemble a well: the books, stored below like deep waters, can be drawn up into the reading room above.

A new historiographical injunction has issued among the Jewish people.

While at the NLI and afterward, I had the opportunity to speak about the October 7 project with Chaim Neria, the curator of the NLI’s Judaica collection. Among the items of particular interest to him are original prayers composed in connection with the war in Gaza. One especially moving prayer he shared with me was written by Rabbi Shai Piron, a former Minister of Education. Entitled “a prayer for a male or female soldier at the front,” it reads as follows (in my translation from the Hebrew):

My God: My father and mother, my brothers and sisters, my relatives and friends, are anxious for my well-being, and pray for my return. Give them strength. Cure their dreams. Still their imaginings. Set upon them Your goodness, grace, kindness, and mercy.

My God, who bids his angels on our behalf: Guard over me and all of my comrades. Give us strength and spirit to protect the children of our people, to guard our land now and forever. And save us from all of the enemies who lie in wait on the path, for You are a God who heeds prayer and importuning.

Neria also shared with me a fascinating and bold prayer composed by two women active in the world of Jewish mindfulness, Orit Layzerson and Yiskah Shomer. It is meant for a woman who is undertaking the post-menstrual immersion in the mikveh, or ritual bath, that will permit her to engage in sexual intercourse with her husband. Reimagined for a case in which the husband is away at the front, the prayer has the woman ask (in my translation from the Hebrew) that “just as the waters of the mikveh envelop me, so should You envelop with mercy and watchfulness the body and spirit of my beloved.” To judge from these texts, the NLI’s archive will be a rich resource for scholars of many stripes.

Libraries don’t typically collect primary sources in real time like this. According to Neria, the NLI was spurred by an appreciation of the degree to which history is “made” on social media today. On October 7 itself, some Hamas members recorded and livestreamed their attacks. Soon after, amidst international horror at the abuses that these videos documented, some of them were deleted. In response to the attack, communities in Israel and across the Jewish world mobilized to provide a vast array of material and spiritual services, much of it coordinated through WhatsApp groups and other online channels. The massacre, the mobilization, the mourning, the war, the worry, the anger, the love: How will the record of all of these things, fragmented among different platforms and subject to different proprietary interests, be preserved for the future? The NLI sees its project, building on the efforts of its many institutional partners, as a response to this challenge.

Peretz and his colleagues in their day and Levite in his both pointed to gentile hostility in underscoring the need for Jews to write their own history. Antisemitism does, alas, persist, and the need to create a comprehensive record of the events of October 7 is especially clear in the face of denialists who, in their conspiratorial echo chambers, claim that most of the dead on that black day fell at the hands of Israel’s own forces, or that there was no rape or sexual violence.

But the existence of a public entity like the NLI is a sign, too, of the radical difference between today’s circumstances and those of Peretz and Levite. The victims of Hamas’s attack were citizens and residents of the Jewish state, and the Jewish state can and has fought back with the aim of dismantling Hamas’s governance and military structure. This counterattack has led to widespread destruction and death among Gazan civilians. How will the devastation be captured in the NLI’s project? When Jews are capable not only of enduring harm in the name of the Jewish people, but of inflicting it, where does that harm figure in Jewish collective memory? Does the great suffering of Gazan civilians resulting from the counterattack have a place in the archive? It is uncertain whether the archive should or will be a site for helping Israel and its friends grapple with these moral costs attendant even on a justified war.

When Jews are capable not only of enduring harm in the name of the Jewish people, but of inflicting it, where does that harm figure in Jewish collective memory?


Like the call for historiographical contributions during World War I, the scope of the NLI’s project is, on its face, radically open-ended: it seeks anything and everything connected to October 7 and its aftermath. There is a tragic pathos in this desire. It is, in its way, a mark of trauma—a sort of reaching toward transcendence amidst the wreckage, for no one but God is capable of remembering everything. The text that Avraham Levite wrote in Auschwitz in fact ends with a prayer to the God of perfect memory:

May it be Your will, You who heeds not the voice of weeping, at least grant us this, that You set our tears in your bottle, so that they might be, that is, that You conceal these little pages of tears in the bottle of being. May they come into the right hands and find their repair.

The lines in italics are quotations from a traditional prayer for the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The prayer, written by the poet Amitai ben Shefatiah near the end of the ninth century, asks God, who heeds the voice of weeping, to collect Israel’s tears in his divine bottle and preserve them there as an impetus to save Israel from the cruel decrees of its persecutors. Levite, in his pious irreverence, distinguishes between the heeding of prayers and the collecting of tears. God clearly does not heed prayers: his people suffer and die with no one to rescue them. Nevertheless, Levite holds to the hope that God might still collect tears, might still bless Levite’s own work and enable at least the preservation of the memory of the dead and of how they died. 

It is an old truism that the modern state usurps the place of God. If this is so, then we might think of social media, in relation to the state, as the primeval force of watery chaos—ever changing, always undermining the solid ground of truth, yet also, in its way, fertilizing that ground. If the project of the state of Israel’s National Library will necessarily fall short of the perfect memory of God, it may nevertheless succeed in buttressing and cultivating the ground of truth, which is the foundation of goodness and hope.

Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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